Esquipulas is a city in Guatemala, almost at the point where that country’s borders make a triangle with Honduras and El Salvador. Apparently this little valley — the name means “place where flowers abound” — was a center of worship in pre-Columbian days, with indigenous peoples trekking there from as far away as Nicaragua. 

Since the 18th century, it has been a great Catholic pilgrimage site because of the Basilica of the Black Christ’s (“Cristo Negro”) wooden carving of the crucified Lord made of black wood.

Although practically unknown in the United States, the basilica is visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year. A Benedictine monastery is attached to the shrine, and the monks attend to the pilgrims’ pastoral needs. 

Their pastoral attention includes an effort to evangelize while celebrating the sacraments. The people have great faith, but are often in need of better understanding, to manipulate a famous construction of St. Anselm, “fides quaerens intellectum” (“faith seeking understanding”).

A priest I heard at Mass evidently was trying to translate their sense of the sacred into explicitly kerygmatic terms about Jesus and the salvation he won for us. When we were in the seminary, we heard a lot about Rudolf Otto and his essay on “The Idea of the Holy.” 

The people who come to Esquipulas would not need anything like the Lutheran theologian’s description of what is sacred. The sacred Scripture might not be so familiar to them, but they know something about prayer we all could benefit from.

In April, I was there with two of my priest friends, Padre Nelson Diaz of El Salvador and Father Anton Grech, a Maltese priest-missionary in Guatemala. We asked to concelebrate the afternoon Mass at the shrine on a Monday. 

There were a few hundred people at Mass, but the priest scheduled said he had already celebrated and invited us to take his place. Priests on vacation do not always want to be front and center at the Eucharist — I drew the short straw and ended up sitting in the celebrant’s chair and preaching.

What is most striking for an American is the fervent devotion of the people. The “Black Christ” is seen in the basilica above the celebrant’s chair, but there is a separate entrance to walk up to the image of Christ, hung on a silver-embossed cross and surrounded by statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Mary Magdalene and St. John. 

The pilgrims enter from outside the basilica, go down the corridor and then up the steps to pray. Sometimes they leave written petitions near the foot of the cross. While exiting, to show respect to the “Black Christ” (“El Senor de Esquipulas”), they make use of handrails to walk backward out of the chapel.

The morning after our Mass at the shrine we made a last visit. I prayed my breviary at the Blessed Sacrament Chapel off to the side of the sanctuary. 

Looking up at the altar, I noticed that the celebrant’s chair I had used the day before had the Coat of Arms of St. Pope John Paul II, because he had celebrated Mass there. So I had been seated in a chair that was a relic, I thought, even though I had resisted being the main celebrant of the Eucharist.

As I prayed, an indigenous woman came and knelt before the tabernacle. She had candles in her hands and prayed in an Indian language sotto voce. The intensity of her prayer was a marvel.

I could not understand her words, but the fervor of her petition and her ability to focus on the presence of the Lord and disregard everything around her was like a lesson to me. Whatever she was telling Jesus, I am sure he heard her. 

The emotion and, at the same time, the discipline evident in her prayer made me think of how often our prayer, especially in the liturgy, is drained of a sense of encounter and reverence. We go through the motions, pass some time. In contrast, she was all in.

After maybe 20 minutes, she relaxed a bit and then sat down. My priest friend remarked later, “See how much faith these people have. She unburdened herself before the Lord, and once she had said everything she wanted to, she felt rested.”

There is Thomistic teaching that wisdom is received according to the mode of the receiver. Our perceptions reflect our history and our own needs. What my friend saw made him happy for the simple faith of the poor.

What I saw made me envious because her devotion made me aware of the immediacy with which she experienced the presence of God. Distracted by so many things and so many activities and so many thoughts, I have trouble focusing in my prayer. 

I was saying my breviary on an iPad that has an app for the breviary in various languages. What I saw of her prayer made me want to throw the iPad away and just kneel down.

I have been reading “The Cloud of Unknowing” and I’m not really sure about all that the mystic author is trying to teach about transcendence and prayer. However, that little lady must have been very close to that Cloud of Unknowing (unknowable, but near, personal and loving) that is communion with God.

Only God knows for sure all that was on the mind of the woman I observed, what crises she was living through or what problems she was facing. Only he knows why she appeared precisely at the moment in the eucharistic chapel. 

But I think one reason that she appeared when she did, and that she expressed her faith in such a way, was because God wanted to tell me something. Thank God for his infinite patience with me.

Father Richard Antall is a Cleveland priest. He was a missionary in El Salvador for 20 years and served as moderator of the curia for the Archdiocese of San Salvador. He is the author of “Witnesses to Calvary: Reflections on the Seven Last Words of Jesus” (Our Sunday Visitor, $13).